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Blendle Wants to Sell You Journalism on the Web, One Story at a Time

Cool idea. Won't work.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

How much would you pay to read this story?

Okay. Wrong question.

Let’s try it again: How much would you pay to read a single story from a digital newspaper or magazine with a subscription paywall, like … the New York Times?

How does somewhere between 19 cents and 39 cents sound?

That’s the premise behind Blendle, a startup that lets users buy individual articles from online publications. The company started in the Netherlands two years ago, and today it’s opening up in the U.S., selling access to stories from the Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time Inc. and the Washington Post, among other publishers.

Blendle, whose investors include the Times and Bloomberg, charges up to 49 cents per article and gives publishers 70 percent of the revenue their stories generate. The company is offering the first 10,000 beta users in the U.S. $2.50 in credit to get started.

Unlike other developments in digital publishing (“Hey! Why don’t you let us take care of distributing and selling your work for you? Trust us!) there’s no downside to Blendle. Publishers are having a hard time making money, and having a new way to make money is a good thing.

But that doesn’t mean Blendle will work. If it does, it will have conquered flaws in both concept and execution.

Who’s Buying?

People will pay for content on the Internet. The Times, for example, now boasts more than one million digital subscribers.

But microtransactions — things you pay for a la carte, a couple cents at a time — are only really working in games, where customers pay small amounts to buy power-ups and other digital goods. And gaming companies like Candy Crush publisher King Digital make money by getting a small percentage of its users to pay an enormous amount of money, while the vast majority of its users don’t pay anything.

There’s no way that you’ll see that formula playing out for news publications. If a “whale” really likes New York Times stories, she’ll simply get a New York Times subscription. She doesn’t need Blendle for that.

How Are They Buying?

Even if you do want to buy an individual New York Times article, it won’t be easy to do it via Blendle. Because Blendle only works if you’re using Blendle — that is, if you’re using its website, or eventually its app.

But people don’t go to reading apps to read stuff — just ask all the failed reading apps (none of which charged a penny). In 2016, a handful of publications are able to draw direct traffic to their sites and apps. And almost everyone else relies on Facebook and other distributors — well, mostly Facebook — to send eyeballs to their stuff.

So unless Blendle, or a Blendle-like payment system, gets built into browsers or apps, most people will never have any idea it exists.

Blendle CEO Alexander Klöpping, who seems to be a smart and pleasant person, says Blendle has gotten off to a good start in Europe. He says 650,000 people have signed up for the service, and about 20 percent of those users have attached some kind of payment system to the service — that is, they’ve actually had the ability to pay for articles via Blendle.

Again: It would be cool if I’m wrong about this. Who knows? I might even write something worth selling one day. But I wouldn’t count on it, and I wouldn’t bet on this one working.

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